Davis' Camels a 'Hi Jolly' Glory; Syrian Drover Helped Prove Their Worth over Horses, Mules

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 18, 2003 | Go to article overview

Davis' Camels a 'Hi Jolly' Glory; Syrian Drover Helped Prove Their Worth over Horses, Mules


Byline: Martha M. Boltz, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In southwestern Texas, alongside the numerous Hispanic place names, are a county, a mountain range and a pre-Civil War fort all bearing the name of Davis.

Fort Davis in Davis County, the long-lived legacy for a short-lived Confederate president, is a National Historic Site under the auspices of the National Park Service. It was at that place some 20 years before the war that an unusual project began - the start of the U.S. Camel Corps, originated by Jefferson Davis.

The fort was established in 1854 amid the westward migration at the close of the war with Mexico as well as the continued swarming to the California gold fields. Re-established as an Army post 13 years later, it finally was abandoned in 1891. The fort saw its most interesting phase in this brief history when camels came to the green valley of the Limpia, the creek that runs to the Pecos River basin, once traversed by early Spanish explorers.

The area, higher in altitude than most of the Lone Star State, is extremely dry. It rains barely enough to permit any sort of farming and cattle raising unless assisted by irrigation. It was hard country for the horses and mules upon which the Army depended, and mortality ran high.

Rough beginnings

Two men originated the camel idea. George Perkins Marsh, a former ambassador to Turkey, was acquainted with the animals' efficiency, and he discussed it with Army 2nd Lt. George H. Crosman, who agreed that the solution to overland transportation problems lay in the "ship of the desert." No one in authority agreed, however - except Maj. Henry C. Wayne of the Quartermaster Corps, who passed on the idea to Davis, then a senator from Mississippi.

Davis liked the idea, and as chairman of the Senate's Committee on Military Affairs, he proposed it several times but met with little support. In 1852, Davis was appointed secretary of war, which gave him the chance to foster the idea of using camels for freight transportation in areas inhospitable to horses. It took three years for him to persuade Congress to appropriate $30,000 for the project, which was kept relatively quiet and received little press attention.

Sailing on the USS Supply with Lt. David Dixon Porter in charge, the camel procurers set out on June 3, 1855. Wayne, who had suggested the idea in 1848, was directly charged with finding and bringing the beasts home.

The first stop was Tunis, where the officers quickly discovered that their cavalry knowledge did not include understanding about camels. They found it difficult, for instance, to discern a healthy animal from a sick one. Nor was it a propitious time to purchase camels. With the Crimean War in full swing, most were working there. Again in Malta, Greece and Turkey they found no healthy animals.

When they reached Egypt, decent camels finally were found at an average cost of $250 each. After negotiations (and bribes), the regulations prohibiting exportation were circumvented, and 33 camels and five camel drovers were loaded on board for the two-month trip to Indianola, Texas.

The ship had been fitted to accommodate the large animals. Heavy gale winds and storms required that they be tied down on their knees to protect them from injury, and because the procurement occurred during rutting season, the camels of both sexes were easily annoyed and intractable. An additional 41 would arrive after a second crossing.

Worth proved quickly

In Texas, Lt. Edward F. Beale took over. The camels were allowed to rest from their arduous journey and were used only sporadically before being taken to their permanent base at Camp Verde, 60 miles west of San Antonio. The main drover was a 27-year-old Syrian named Hadji Ali, whose name proved unmanageable for the locals, and he became known as "Hi Jolly." Upon arrival at Camp Verde, the camels were welcomed by all, and one woman sent President Franklin Pierce a pair of socks "knitted from the pile of our camels. …

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